[box] In 2009 Royal Flush had the distinct pleasure of interviewing the late, great, Leslie Nielsen. On Nov. 29, 2010, at the ripe, old age of 84, Mr. Nielsen passed away, doing what he loved best: Acting. His collaborations with the Zucker Brothers, the Airplane! And Naked Gun franchises, are easily his best work. The real hidden gems include his star-turn role the 1951 sci-fi masterpiece, Forbidden Planet. From all of us here at Royal Flush, rest in peace Leslie, you were the best![/box]
From The Files of Leslie Nielsen
Reflecting back on his 60 years as Hollywood’s clown prince of comedy
By Scoop Wasserstein Artwork by Danny Hellman
An entire flight crew and half the passengers are near death! All due to a bad fish dinner, no less. Will the Trans-American flight make it to Chicago to save the girl with the heart transplant? Who’ll land the friggin’ plane?! The protagonist, played by Robert Hays, asks the only onboard doctor, Leslie Nielsen, for an assessment of the situation. Nielsen can only respond grimly.
Hays then exclaims, “Surely, you can’t be serious?” Nielsen responds, deadpan: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” A career was not born, it was reborn for the Hollywood veteran. Even today, 28 years later, when people pass Nielsen on the street, “Everyone wants me to call them Shirley,” he says, laughing. It was the opening salvo in one of the most surprising successful second acts in cinematic history that immortalized Nielsen’s unique comic persona.
In a recent exclusive interview with Royal Flush, the vibrant 83-year-old comedic genius reflected on his unique trajectory, from childhood pranks in Saskatchewan to his luck at being cast in 1980 comedic masterpiece Airplane!
Nielsen is best known for his series of films with creators David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, which defined his comedic persona: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad, Police Squad! and Airplane. But Airplane! was the biggest leap for the actor, who was previously best known for his dramatic work. “You get really lucky sometimes, and I got really lucky with Airplane!” Nielsen says now about his casting in the highly influencial comedy classic.
Airplane’s creative partners, who had previously cast Nielsen in 1977’s Kentucky Fried Movie, were in total control of the casting process. Nielsen remembers that “they had in mind that I should play the doctor in it for no good reason… It happened to turn out that they had me in the movie saying lines that were funny, funny stuff and they spotted me for being the clown I really am and all of a sudden I started doing funnier and funnier stuff and started to do a lot more work for them.” He wasn’t the only dramatic actor playing against type in the flick. Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges, among others, were making the leap, but from his entrance, make no mistake, Royal Flush readers, Nielsen steals the movie.
The quartet quickly became occupationally inseparable, collaborating on the two other legs of what Nielsen calls “my pyramid,” Police Squad and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad. According to Nielsen, “the Zuckers and Jim Abrahams spotted me as someone who seemed to be going on the same road that they went on and they put me in the Police Squad series.” He continues with obvious pride that “I feel like I was a king and that was the place that is preserved for me.”
Nielsen starred on Police Squad as Det. Frank Drebin. Mixing an anticipation of ‘90’s irony with a resurrection of silent film’s slapstick deadpan ethos, the show was a parody of 1950s cop dramas like M Squad and Dragnet. According to a laughing Nielsen, there is one key difference between his show and its inspiration: “M Squad was a serious half- hour drama on television and Police Squad was an unserious serious half- hour drama on television.”
Nielsen remembers, in his irrepressible monotone, punctuated by slight chuckles, “We were only allowed to do five shows before Paramount took us off the air, but that was really a big mistake because a couple of years later they sent me a script called Naked Gun. And away we went and we had nothing but fun.” Despite its quick cancellation, Nielsen believes that the show would have been more successful today. “I think it would work even now because I don’t think anything that’s funny is going to die that fast.”
Nielsen remembers, “David Zucker had fifteen rules he wrote in book form. He got to 14 and then to 15 and he said the 15th rule is that there ain’t no rules. If your rules seem to be predictable and right, chances are you’re not doing anything funny.” The Naked Gun movies succeed brilliantly on this desire to subvert as many conventions as possible.
Unfortunately, it looks like there are no plans for another installment, not only due to the inevitable O.J. Simpson questions—he had a well-reviewed recurring role in the series as the fun-loving Nordberg. Nielsen admits it “would be a little tricky.” But, he says, “They could have me. I wouldn’t be dying my hair.” He definitely doesn’t think there is anyone who could replace on-screen girlfriend Priscilla Presley, declaring: “I just thought she was wonderful and she kept on getting better all the time and she was a very talented and sweet, lovely gal.“
Rummaging through his memories, Nielsen sounds so gleeful, it’s clear that his experiences on the Zucker-Abrahams films have been some of his happiest. In many ways, it comes out of his early days. And Nielsen has kept one lesson from those days close to his heart. Nielsen remembers legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg saying, “When the actor is doing drama versus when he is doing comedy, he must perform the comedy slightly more seriously than the drama and that’s the truth of it, too.”
Nielsen’s current iteration as the Buster Keaton of modern screwball would have shocked anyone who knew his early work. After arriving in New York City at 19 from Canada, Nielsen began studying at the Neighborhood Playhouse, one of New York’s most prestigious acting centers, in 1945.
The budding thespian’s first job in New York was on the ABC showcase The Actor’s Studio in 1950. Nielsen remembers with a shrug that “I did two different shows, one after the other.” At that point, it was all dramatic roles, none of which he seems to be particularly proud of. A recent viewing of ABC’s prestigious Kraft Television Theater’s 1954 production of The Scarlet Letter, which featured Nielsen as Rev. Dimsdale, illustrated his stolid acting style. Seeing it in light of his later comedic work, he plays it slightly less intensely than Det. Drebin and it’s hard not to wait for hilarity to unfurl around him.
Nielsen’s acting style aptly reflected the time’s and he quickly became an in-demand star. In 1956, he was brought out to Los Angeles to begin his film career. Although it wasn’t a prestigious project, it was certainly historical in its own way. Nielsen chuckles that, “It’s a movie I call Vagabond Turkey… I came on and hopped on a horse and put some armor on and had a great time. That was, I think, the last giant musical that they made at Paramount.”
Forbidden Planet, Nielsen’s next project, had more of an impact, although in a surprising about-face for the classically trained actor. Nielsen’s sing-song voice declares that Forbidden Planet “was the forerunner of all of the science fiction stuff. Forbidden Planet could easily have been a pilot film for Star Trek.” The film’s success made Nielsen a Hollywood name. He still sounds excited about the project, amusedly declaring that “It was the first movie that was generated, that was shot out of the atmosphere of Earth and had traveled to a planet called Altair-4. And it had all the incredible, awesome new inventions of its time. Whatever the prop man could dream up.”
From then on, Nielsen worked constantly, taking work in TV whenever there wasn’t a new film, appearing in everything from Wagon Train to Alfred Hitchcock Presents to The Fugitive. But he is best known in the mid-’60s playing Dr. Vincent Markham on long-running soap opera Peyton Place. Nielsen remembers it as being “interesting. I played twins, a research scientist and
a young tycoon-businessman.”
Nielsen’s television and movie jobs kept him steadily working, but never quite climbing into the top ranks. His final big cinematic turn before Airplane! was a disaster movie called The Poseidon Adventure. “I said the line when the wave is coming down onto the ship and onto the bridge and I was looking through whatever it is,” he remembers. “This thing is towering above us and I look up and I said ‘oh my God!’” As Airplane! parodied those disaster movies, Nielsen, a veteran, was a perfect choice.
Airplane! was not Nielsen’s first comedic foray, but it was the first that brought him attention. “I remember doing a MASH [episode] and I did some funny work in it and that was it.” It was Airplane! that finally allowed Nielsen to express the comedy he always wanted to do.
During his early days grinding out drama, Nielsen remembers “seeing a Charlie Chaplin festival at a theater on Third Avenue and 56th Street in New York. I had decided not to go to the Neighborhood Playhouse where I was studying and I went inside. When I got out of there, I was laughing so hard I could hardly contain myself. It was all because of Charlie Chaplin.” Even when he didn’t have a chance to express it, Nielsen’s identification with the classic comedians of an older era was always present.
Nielsen’s comedic aspirations were “always” present during his frozen days in Saskatchewan, Canada. Smiling happily, he says, “Comedy was the light of my life when I was in school.” His family not only appreciated humor, they practically demanded it. “My father was a Mountie, a police officer, himself, and he was a pretty tough guy.” According to Nielsen, “You told jokes, because to keep him laughing was a pretty good thing.”
Nielsen’s hometown weather motivated the quality of the practical jokes. One of his proudest pranks involved the town outhouses. “One cold night a year the fog came in and the people were caught in their houses and wanted to head for the outhouse, if they didn’t keep their eyes open… ’cause we had picked the outhouse up and moved it back two or three feet.”
Nielsen remembers his early days fondly, despite his easy-to-anger father and the sub-zero temperatures. Those times were clearly the best preparation for the most successful iteration of his acting career. Nielsen proudly states that “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. So I often go back to visit friends and I often go back to work.”
Despite his impressive dramatic training, Nielsen doesn’t miss that work. He says contentedly that “I’m doing comedy now, but… I didn’t go to work and become an actor in order to retire and it’s still very much a part of my nature.” He recently ended a decade-long between-projects one-man show about legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow. After doing The Naked Gun, he realized he wouldn’t get the chance to do many more dramatic roles, so he bought the rights to the play.
He proudly claims Chaplin as his favorite comedian, and uses the lasting presence of I Love Lucy as proof of comedy’s immortality. He says “I remembered seeing her show on the air in the early 1950s and it’s still on the air, every day somewhere.” Nielsen is grateful for that example, saying that “Lucille Ball was such a wonderful clown and that’s good for a budding comedic actor to subject himself to, particularly when it’s right there in front of you.”
Nielsen works only occasionally these days. “I’m reaching that point where I’m very, very fussy and finicky about my work so I don’t have a movie at the moment waiting for me. But I have other things that I’m doing.” When pressed about upcoming projects for which his fans can be excited, he laughingly confesses, “I’ve been working very hard, very hard on sleeping!” He does want to keep working however, “I’m going to die with my boots on.”
His two recent cinematic appearances, in –Super Hero Movie and An American Carol – are more explicable: They’re productions from Nielsen’s beloved collaborator David Zucker.
An American Carol, a parody of A Christmas Carol mocking liberals, particularly filmmaker Michael Moore, is an angry film geared toward conservatives who neglected to show up for the opening. Although Nielsen is an independent on the liberal side of the aisle, he described his participation as due to this being “a favored nation status movie. Actors do their work for $1 and nobody gets more than a $1.” Nielsen explains that the movie was meant to respond to the media’s liberal bias: “It was really David lashing out a little bit at the Republicans getting the short end of the stick in the press, in the papers and in other forms of publicity.” Although he hasn’t seen the movie, he could tell while filming that “it is angry… and it’s pretty tough to be doing a comedy when you’re doing angry things.”
Nielsen is heading into his final years and there is no other way to describe his demeanor than completely pleased. He is not the representative of the tortured comedian archetype. When asked if he has any regrets, he declares, “No more than anybody else.”
Nielsen has his pyramid, an immortal legacy of comedy and a career lasting decades longer than many of his contemporaries.
Most of all, Nielsen is thankful for his good fortune: “I was picked to be the spokesman for their sense of humor in The Naked Gun and so on. The biggest break I ever had was playing the doctor in Airplane! I was destined to play grandfather parts and then all of a sudden I was playing Lieutenant Frank Drebin on Police Squad.
I’m pretty lucky.” One surprising casting decision has led to one of the most successful and surprising second acts in film history. ♠